The Sanskrit word bandha means lock. Bandhas are physical exercises that involve the constriction of particular areas of the body to block the flow of energy, which results in an increased energy flow in the opposite direction. The bandhas work to gently release more pranic energy for conscious awakening. While the bandhas can be practiced on their own, they are more often interwoven into kriya and meditation practice.
Before going deeper, let’s return to our roots. The word yoga means union or oneness, and is derived from the Sanskrit word yuj, meaning to join. This joining is described in spiritual terms as the union of the individual consciousness with the supreme consciousness. Kundalini Yoga often refers to this as the merging of the finite with the infinite self.
On a practical level, yoga balances and harmonizes the mind, body, and spirit, and many gravitate to the practice for these benefits. But at the core of these teachings is a technology to awaken the potential of the individual, and to harness the intelligence of the nervous system to reconnect the self with our integral, interconnected being. In practice, the bandhas lay the groundwork for this experience.
The Sanskrit word bandha means to hold, tighten, or lock. This describes the precise physical action involved in bandha practice. The bandhas aim to redirect the neurobiological energies of the body into the central channel of the spine, for the purpose of spiritual awakening. Guru Prem Singh describes this as a sort of “hydraulic pressure” which awakens the psychic faculties and forms an adjunct to higher yogic practice. It may sound lofty, but this is a practical tool.
The primary function of the bandhas is twofold: to create the inner strength to sustain the opening of shushmana nadi, and to encourage energy to move freely within that channel. Practiced regularly, the subtle, internal contractions improve muscle tone and spinal alignment, and relieve unnecessary tension.
The shushmana nadi is the central nerve channel whose physical counterpart is the spine. The specific angles of Kundalini postures, combined with the breath and the bandhas, direct the pranic (life giving) and apanic (downward flowing) energies to the navel. This combination creates a psychic heat. And that heat begins to awaken kundalini, which moves through shushmana nadi in the central channel of the spine. The bandhas are central to this happening, as they work to redirect the otherwise downward or outward flow of energies.
The bandhas are completely integrated into the Kundalini Yoga and Meditation practice. They consolidate one’s effort and direct prana within the body to promote healing, energizing, and strengthening of the whole human being.
"Bandhas protect and project, that is what they are for. They protect the alignment of your spine and project your energy where you want it to go."
-Guru Prem Singh Khalsa
There are three main body locks in yoga: moola bandha, uddiyana bandha, and jalandhara bandha. When all three are applied at once, it is called Maha Bandha. According to the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, these three bandhas act directly on the three granthis, or psychic knots. These three knots create dormancy of body, emotions, and intellect, and must be untied on the path to awakening. Alongside each bandha is a description of the granthi they work to untie.
What: Root Lock is a subtle contraction of the muscles in the pelvic floor. It coordinates, stimulates, and balances the energies of the lower chakras. Moola bandha locks the energy at the lower abdomen and directs its flow into the central channel, or shushmana nadi.
How: From a seated position, gently pull the rectum in towards the sex organ, and lift the muscles of the pelvic floor. Males lift from the perineum, just between the scrotum and the anus; females lift internally, from the tip of the cervix. Broken down, this is three actions applied at once:
1) Contract and hold the muscles around the anus
2) Contract and hold the muscles around the sex organ
3) Contract the muscles of the lower abdomen and pull the navel in towards the spine.
When: Root Lock is frequently applied at the end of an exercise. It is sometimes applied, continuously or rhythmically, throughout a meditation or posture. Root Lock can be practiced on the internal or external breath retention.
Why: Root Lock crystallizes the effect of an exercise. It blends prana and apana at the navel center which opens the shushmana for kundalini energy to flow through the spine. It also stimulates the proper flow of spinal fluid.
Moola bandha stimulates the pelvic nerves and tones the uro-genital and excretory systems. It is helpful in psychosomatic and degenerative illnesses. It relieves depression and promotes good health. It helps to realign the physical, mental, and psychic bodies in preparation for spiritual awakening.
Contraindication: Do not practice root lock during menstruation.
The Knot of Brahma
When you apply moola bandha consciously and correctly, it is said to untie the knot of Brahma. The knot of Brahma is located within the first chakra, at the base of your spine. When the knot is untied and the energy is flowing smoothly, you feel balanced and free from your attachments to form and the senses.
What: Diaphragm Lock works to integrate emotions, pranic energy, and functions that occur above and below the diaphragm muscle. By contracting the abdominal muscle and lifting the diaphragm, the otherwise outward moving prana is redirected to the heart center and up.
How: Inhale, then exhale completely. With the breath held out, pull the entire abdominal region in and up. While the navel point will move on its own, do not purposefully contract it. Hold for 10-60 seconds without strain. Then relax the abdomen, and inhale without releasing Neck Lock or raising the chin.
Many people prefer to practice this in a standing position. To try it, stand with the feet shoulder width apart. Bend forward slightly, with your hands on your knees and back straight. Lift your chest slightly, and on your exhale, apply the same lock.
When: On an empty stomach, and only after you exhale all of the breath.
Why: Massages intestines, heart muscle, and tones the abdominal organs. It stimulates the function of the pancreas and liver and strengthens the internal organs. Additional benefits include:
Contraindications: People with colitis, stomach or intestinal ulcer, major abdominal problems, high blood pressure, heart disease or glaucoma should not perform this lock. Avoid during pregnancy.
The Knot of Vishnu
When you apply uddiyana bandha correctly and consciously, it is said to untie the knot of Vishnu. The knot of Vishnu is located at the heart chakra: the area of your rib cage, heart, lungs, and thymus gland. When the energy is no longer knotted at this center, but is flowing and open, you can feel the playfulness of your life and the larger cosmic plan with perspective and relaxation.
What: Neck Lock is the most basic and generally applied lock. It regulates gross and subtle movement in the upper part of the body. Practiced correctly, it helps stabilizes the blood pressure, allowing the cerebrospinal fluid to flow to the brain.
How: From a seated posture, lift your ribcage away from your pelvis, creating a gentle lift in the sternum. Tuck your chin slightly, pulling it down and in towards the back of your neck. Roll your shoulders back and down to lengthen the neck. Relax the muscles of your neck, throat, and face. To break the bandha, exhale slowly and bring the chin to its normal upright position.
When: All chanting meditation, most pranayama. Can practice with the breath held in (internal retention) or out (external retention).
Why: Jalandhara bandha compresses the carotid sinuses, which regulate the circulatory and respiratory systems. The pressure on these sinuses decreases the heart rate and increases breath retention. This relaxes the mind and relieves stress, anxiety, and anger. It develops meditative introversion and one-pointedness. The stimulus on the throat helps to balance thyroid function and regulate the metabolism and blood pressure.
Contraindications: People with high intracranial pressure, vertigo, high blood pressure or heart disease should not practice jalandhara bandha. Refrain from practice if vertigo or dizziness arises.
The Knot of Shiva (aka Knot of Rudra)
Jalandhara bandha, applied consciously and correctly, is said to help untie the knot of Shiva. This psychic knot is located at your brow point. When the energy of this knot is untied and flowing, you feel free of time and space. You associate yourself with the timelessness and non-duality of the soul and the Divine essence.
What: The Great Lock is the application of moola, uddiyana, and jalandhara bandhas at once. Maha bandha is central to Kundalini Yoga.
How: Exhale the breath, and apply all three locks (Root, Diaphragm, and Neck) simultaneously. Hold the bandhas and the breath for as long as comfortable without strain. Then release moola, uddiyana, and jalandhara bandhas in this order. Inhale slowly when the head is upright.
When: On an empty stomach. After external breath retention. Done in various postures and with different mudras.
Why: Rejuvenates the glands, nerves, and chakras. Enhances the benefits of all three bandhas. Said to cure many ailments such as improper blood pressure, menstrual cramps, intestinal irregularity, and more. It affects the hormonal secretions of the pineal gland and regulates the entire endocrine system. Checks the degenerative and aging processes and rejuvenates every cell of the body.
Like anything else in Kundalini Yoga, the bandhas are best learned by experiencing them. To familiarize yourself with them, sit on your heels with the knees spread slightly apart. Rest your palms on your thighs.
Self Awareness through Bandha Practice
As you learn the basics of body locks, are there some areas of your body that are more stiff or feel more constricted than other areas? Take your time and meditate on the benefits of each lock in the physical, psychological, and energetic realms as you practice. This may reveal new or old aspects of your body, mind, and energy that need attention or healing. Allow the body locks to work over time, and incorporate them into your practice.
How do you feel after practicing the body locks? Can you feel the effect of the locks on your yoga practice? Keep a journal as you learn to master these locks and benefit from their powerful effects.